Where’s Jonathan Swift When We Need Him? – The Daily Beast

Nice piece by John Stubbs on Swift’s enduring relevance in a “post-truth” and “alternative facts” world (George Orwell is also worth re-reading):

Jonathan Swift’s “Essay upon the Art of Political Lying” tells us that “post-truth” statements are nothing new. “As the vilest writer hath his readers, so the greatest liar hath his believers: and it often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work.” He was writing in 1710, but his words have been borne out by much that has happened in the last year. Swift also begged a question that many are asking now: Will there be any room left in politics for those who aren’t prepared to lie?

Swift’s hatred of falsehood sat oddly, in fact, with his love of a good fib. Some of his most celebrated works were elaborate hoaxes: His best known book, Gulliver’s Travels, was presented to the public as a voyager’s genuine memoir, and large numbers of readers were apparently taken in. Swift is generally regarded as the foremost satirist in English. It’s mentioned less often, though, that he was also a master of the primary art of getting facts in order and checking sources. By the time Gulliver emerged into the world, Swift had already made a formidable name for himself as a journalist as well as a satirist.

Satirists of course have license to exaggerate and distort; but Swift insisted that there was an absolute link between verifiable fact and moral truth. He had a devastating way of letting figures speak for themselves. In one of his first publishing sensations, an anti-war work called The Conduct of the Allies (1711), he used secret information provided by friends within government. The Conduct was an epoch-shattering critique of the corrupt means being used to prolong Britain’s war against France. Swift exposed a political and financial elite set on warfare for the sake of profit, and demonstrated that “Shock Doctrine” tactics were in use long before 20th century economists figured them out. His astounding book, staggering for its deployment of research and privileged information as well as lethally brilliant writing, helped end a long and largely senseless campaign.

Swift often wrote of satire as holding up a mirror or magnifying glass to reality. Before Swift, the word “satire” was often synonymous for “libel,” the idea being that satirical writers could say more or less anything they wanted about someone they hated. Swift was not at all timid when it came to voicing his dislikes, but sought to restore a higher purpose to his chosen mode of writing. For it to carry weight, satirical mockery had to be based on solid claims. And it was important, then as now, that satire scored the points it needed: for by making people of influence seem ridiculous when they acted wrongly, it made them seem a little less frightening, and opened a space in which there could be meaningful free speech about what such people were doing.

As a protest writer in the 1720s and ’30s, Swift laid bare the injustice of British rule in Ireland. He was an Irishman himself, born in Dublin in 1667, but to English parents. To give his writing substance he went to inordinate lengths in checking the situation in the Irish countryside, where people were starving as a result of exploitative land practices and repressive legislation. He made sure that he was fully up to date with the most reliable trade figures and consulted widely with well-placed sources in business and administration.

His subsequent approach to writing itself was a dangerous one, namely to take a “post-truth” mentality as far as it could go. He fought hypocrisy by creating a series of masks. The most memorable specimen in his portfolio was his Modest Proposal, a short essay of 1729. In this he assumed the voice of an entirely sincere and indeed socially concerned psychopath. Swift’s “proposer” argues calmly that poor Irish children could be sold as delicacies for wealthy tables. The essay’s power comes partly from Swift’s vision of where callousness might lead, but also from a ruthlessly detached observation of reality. He described scenes of deprivation that all his readers could recognize.

Many of the great satirical hits in Gulliver’s Travels also take their strength from Swift’s honesty about facts that his fellow Britons and Europeans preferred to ignore or view differently. One such moment comes when Gulliver explains to the gigantic king of Brobdingnag how politics and war work in Europe. Nothing he says is very sensational; Swift’s readers could deny none of it. And so the king of Brobdingnag concludes that most of them must belong to a really horrible species of “vermin.”

A large part of Swift’s cultural legacy is his way of showing how even morally developed people can be brought to accept horrifying practices. The secret is tied up with what those people assume to be the truth. In the Travels, a morally “superior” race of horse-beings—Swift loved horses—share their land with rather brutal, dishonest and undeniably filthy humans, the Yahoos. The horses decide they have no choice but to exterminate their two-legged neighbors. This “final solution” is arguably the punishment Swift is saying we humans will ultimately deserve—for our violence to each other and contempt for the environment. But he leaves a less than inspiring image of those killer horses, which had recognizable counterparts in Swift’s actual world.

The scale and daring of “post-truth” politics might lead some to think that lies can only be fought with lies. The work of Jonathan Swift should make us pause at such a moment: the moral case, Swift urged, is undeniable when the empirical case has clear validity. This unparalleled creator of satirical fiction demonstrated that those concerned with truth should keep faith with it.

Source: Where’s Jonathan Swift When We Need Him? – The Daily Beast

An Arab festival, a headless clown, a sword—cue the outrage

Martin Patriquin on the humour of the Festival du Monde Arabe de Montréal:

The festival team did so by adopting a particularly ballsy theme for this year’s festival. The FMA has never been particularly anodyne; last year’s theme was “Folies Métèques,” which translates roughly to “dirty immigrant follies.” This year’s theme goes further with  “Hilarus Delirus,” an apparent double entendre meaning either hilarious delirium or delirious slave (Hilarus was a gladiator owned by the Roman emperor Nero). The idea is that laughing  through anything—up to and including decapitation—is the best revenge against one’s decapitators, figurative or otherwise.

The festival itself further destroys the cliché that Arab culture is a desert of bloody austerity. If the headless clown wasn’t enough, consider the accompanying video by Lynda Thalie, a Montreal singer who originally hails from Algeria. It is a five-minute carnival of painted faces and naked flesh set to Arab strings­—a Muslim fundamentalist’s nightmare, performed by an Algerian woman. The lineup also includes Iraqi-Montrealer rapper Narcicyst, who is as outspoken about Islamic fundamentalist regimes as he is of what he sees as the West’s enabling of them.

The festival’s theme also exposes another unspoken truth: that the critiquing of religious fundamentalism is most visibly the domain of non-Arabs. It makes it all too easy for apologists of, say, the murder of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists to to wrap themselves in the veil of Muslim persecution. The FMA’s headless clown lays waste to this specious argument. It is heartening to see Arabs—namely, the Muslims, Berbers, Christians and Jews who comprise the FMA team—critique the very same fundamentalism. (An important aside: the clown bleeds words and musical notes, not blood.)

Quebec has had a tumultuous few years in regards to Muslims and other religious minorities. After the Parti Québécois’s electoral attempts to remove all religious symbols from the bodies of its public servantsin 2013, the newly elected Liberals went to another absurd extreme, by introducing a bill that many legal experts say would make it illegal to critique any organized religion. Both are shoddy in their own way. Thankfully, both failed to become law.

By laughing through his own misery, the headless clown is a reminder that the best line of attack against fundamentalism isn’t through laws or government decrees. It’s as simple as embracing the culture and deriding the extremists who would dare try to smother it.

Source: An Arab festival, a headless clown, a sword—cue the outrage

Missing the Point of Charlie Hebdo. Again. – The Daily Beast on satire

Charlie_Hebdo_RefugeesGreat point on once again how many critics of Charlie Hebdo don’t get satire (the offending cartoon above):

Satire is, by definition, offensive. It is meant to make us feel uncomfortable. It is meant to make us scratch or heads, think, do a double-take and then think again. It is supposed to take our prejudices, turn them upside down, reapply them, and make us think we’re seeing something we’re not, until we stop to question ourselves.

Yes taste is always in the eye of the beholder. But that’s the whole point of goodsatire. It is not meant to be to our tastes. It is meant to challenge our tastes. Having our fundamental assumptions about life challenged is never a comfortable thing. Bringing this back to the subject at hand, far from insulting him, these cartoons about Aylan are a damning indictment on the anti-refugee sentiment that has spread across Europe. The McDonald’s image is a searing critique of our heartless European consumerism, in the face of one of the worst human tragedies of our times. In particular, this image plays on the notion that while we moan there are not enough resources to cope with the influx of refugees, we simultaneously offer two for one McDonald’s Happy Meals to our own children. The image about Christians walking on water while Muslims drown is — so — critiquing what the magazine views as hypocritical European Christian “love” and truly bigoted claims, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s, that Europe is a “Christian” civilization.

Hebdo is no more racist a magazine than that bastion of liberal media The New Yorker was when it depicted Obama dressed as a Muslim, fist-bumping his angry black-revolutionary wife Michelle.

Not to our taste? Okay. Make us cringe? Fair enough. Don’t like them? Fine. But whatever we do, let us not misrepresent these images. Juxtaposing images of a dead child next to offers of cheap food “meal deals” is not mocking little Aylan, it is mocking us. It is mocking us for what we miss every single day, hidden in plain sight, and we do not see it because this is how desensitized we have become to human suffering. No, those besieged, brave satirists at Hebdo are not mocking Aylan. They are mocking newspaper covers like this from the UK right-wing tabloid The Daily Mail in which an image of Aylan was — in a national newspaper —  placed below an actual food deal. And how many of us noticed that on the day this Daily Mail cover went to print?

Poe’s law refers to a standard by which satire can be judged to be too good, where parodies of extreme views are so well performed that they are indistinguishable from the real thing. Yes, if those courageous disturbers of our conscience at Charlie Hebdo — those who survived the massacre that is —- are guilty of anything, it is that they are too good at their job.

Source: Missing the Point of Charlie Hebdo. Again. – The Daily Beast

Islamic poets wrote their own crude irreverent satire, centuries before Charlie Hebdo

Always good to know history:

Intolerance of satire is not intrinsic to Islamic civilization. In fact, Islamic history bears its own tradition of irreverent writing on religious imagery. One of the most influential and lauded (though not uncontroversial) Arabic poets of all time, Abu Nuwas, regularly employed sexually graphic and borderline blasphemous imagery in his own brand of “Islamic satire” that resonates to this day.

Writing from Baghdad during the zenith of the Abbassid period — the Islamic empire that lasted from roughly the mid-8th to mid-13th centuries — Abu Nuwas drew on profane and offensive imagery as a way to subvert the authority of the caliph and mock the excesses of the court. Despite his critique of those in power, he himself was a court poet, providing him with an elite audience.

Often, his words directly targeted the institutions of Islam. In one colorful verse, for example, he calls sodomy the “true jihad.” Playing on the meaning of the word “Islam” as submission (to God), he draws on the word’s sexual connotations to suggest that Muslims should get non-Muslims to “submit” through sex.

In another of his verses, two young boys fall in love, and in lieu of praying five times, they fornicate five times a day when the Muslim call to prayer. Such a perversion of the religious pillars makes Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons tame by comparison.

A few centuries later, an Andalusian poet and disciple of Abu Nuwas, Ibn Sahl, composed a poem describing his conversion from Judaism to Islam as the choice to take a new lover. Seeming to violate the sanctity surrounding profane depictions of the Prophet, he writes, “I abandoned the love of Moses, to adore Muhammad.”

Is this depiction of prophet as lover less offensive than a cartoon promising readers “100 lashes if they don’t die of laughter”? Or a drawing of a woman running nude with a Burqa protruding from her rear? Both juxtapose religious imagery with the irreverent and profane in order to comment on the status quo.

Islamic poets wrote their own crude irreverent satire, centuries before Charlie Hebdo – The Washington Post.

Paris attacks illustrate the power of mockery – Saunders

Nice piece by Doug Saunders on the power of satire:

Mockery travels faster than news or analysis. While Charlie Chaplin’s Interview-style mockery of Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator was not considered a major part of the arsenal against the Fuhrer in that predigital era (and certainly didn’t provoke violence), the instant spread of disrespectful imagery is capable of threatening entire edifices of authority overnight.

What Charlie Hebdo offended was not any broad community or religion or political tendency, but rather those militant few who are driven to revenge and violence at the prospect of disrespect. Its unsubtle, schoolyard style of humour, much like Mr. Rogen’s, turned off a lot of people and groups, but that’s a fully acceptable response to bad taste and not at all related to vengeful violence.

A century and a half ago, what the police called “respect crimes” were part of the political mainstream in countries such as Canada, where wounded honour was the cause for duels and vengeance. Gauntlet-throwing died out, in most places, for generations. But something has happened in the online age to make mockery, once again, into a potent instrument. The only reasonable response is to deploy it as often, and as mercilessly, as possible.

I remember reading Satanic Verses during the time of the fatwa and some of the passages took my breath away in the sharpness and humour of Rushdie’s use of satire to make his points.

Paris attacks illustrate the power of mockery – The Globe and Mail.

In the Mideast, as in France, satire is a weapon against extremists

Interesting piece by Nahrain Al-Mousawi on satire within the Arab world with some quite amusing examples. Her conclusion regarding the risks of organizing such satire by Western governments is valid.:

While the efforts highlighted above are organic, based on a shared community, other efforts appear to be more technocratically orchestrated. A recent article noted that Mr. Sharro’s satirical chart was widely shared, including by the U.S. State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. The CSCC has exhibited its own type of muted mockery in a video countering IS recruitment efforts. The integration of humor in U.S. counter-terrorism strategies has been ramped up since the development of social media and its snarky style of communication. A State Department program calling itself Viral Peace confronts and undermines online currents of extremism with “logic, humor, satire,” in its creator’s words.

But a government-backed effort does not necessarily make for an effective means of striking back (and can often be perceived as intrusive, stilted or awkward). After all, satire’s subversiveness can be an ill-fitting mask worn by government institutions, distinct from more organic efforts, produced in times of crisis by a shared, discursive community – at least, when that community itself is threatened. Still, if laughing in the face of the absurd reveals an ability to “dwell with the incomprehensible without dying from fear or going mad,” then that may be the first step in striking back – by having the last laugh.

In the Mideast, as in France, satire is a weapon against extremists – The Globe and Mail.

Ottawa students use satire to battle ISIL and highlight plight of Arab women with video

One of the better examples of grass-roots efforts to create a radicalization counter-narrative, and a funny parody of Apple ads in the ISIS context (watch the video report – 2 minutes):

Inspired by Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, the trio and half a dozen occasional cast members are attempting to bring satire into places and minds that have never experienced it.

“We are trying to take the best of this world and introduce it to the Middle East and bring the best of the Middle East and introduce it to this world,’ says Barghouthi, a Carleton University biology student.

Prime among the trio’s target audience are Canadian Muslims in their own age group – the same young western Muslims that ISIL has in its sights.

“ISIS has been able to get wide attention across the world by using very slick videos made by highly qualified people,” says Marwah. “By making people laugh we hope our message will sink in.“

“Our message to young Muslims is that ISIS is using Islam in a sick way – using it as an excuse to kill people,” says Carleton political management student Marwah. “They are going after your emotions. Canada is a beautiful country, don’t let this stuff spoil it for you.”

Marwah says he has seen no evidence in his circle of friends that the ISIL message is resonating.

“For all of us, I think to know that someone would want to kill people in the name of our religion is frustrating,” he says.

Ottawa students use satire to battle ISIL and highlight plight of Arab women with video | Ottawa Citizen.